17 September 2018

Food Safety and Healthy Diets: Docking, Colliding or Passing in the Night?

I have been working on food security and malnutrition for 30 years and food safety issues have almost no visibility. I realised that I also am woefully ignorant personally about this topic. This is very strange – as I learned last week – on both counts.  As the presentations at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – GAIN technical workshopin the Vatican made clear, food safety threats are on the rise as food systems modernise but the capacity to control those risks lags behind.
It is clear that food safety is a necessary but not sufficient condition for healthy diets. But many people with my background do take it for granted. We should not and this is why.
First, if, for example, we want food systems to make good things like vegetables and fruits more available, affordable and desirable there is a real risk that the price we will have to pay is greater consumption of pesticides.  That’s a price no one should have to pay. The most nutritious foods we want to promote like dairy, fish, fruit and vegetables are more susceptible to food borne diseases than, say, highly processed biscuits, snacks or sugar.
Second, food “unsafety” can generate large numbers of Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALYs) lost. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that “600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs).”
Third, food safety scares do not need to generate large burden of disease figures to have devastating effects on lives. For example the livelihoods of the poorest farmers can be wrecked due to the distrust generated by such scares and by the potentially exclusionary food safety standards that are put in place long after the damage has been done.
So what are the pros and cons of trying to link thinking and action in food safety with healthy diets?
On the positive side, food safety issues could enter into bigger food system conversations, to rise up the policy agenda and recruit more advocates. Food safety has to be alert to changing threats generated by climate change, new technologies, climate change and urbanisation. The healthy diets community worries about these issues a lot—they could help make those lateral connections. For the healthy diets community, the food safety community could teach us about systems thinking in food. Food safety is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain and food safety experts worry about all of them and, I suspect, understand better the unintended consequences of changing one part of the food system for other parts.
What are the downsides of closer collaboration? For the food safety community there is the risk of becoming lost within the food system/healthy diet debates and budgets. There is already some sensitivity because past attempts to link with the food security community resulted in food safety becoming the minor partner.  For the healthy diet community the risk is that food safety may appear to present an added layer of complexity in what is already a complex space.
But I would urge both communities to find ways of moving closer together.  Consider the following:
  • Individual foods can be safe, but in certain diet combinations they are deadly, generating massive DALY burdens (see the country profiles at IHME). Will unsafe diets usurp unsafe foods as a policy priority? I think this a risk for the food safety community.
  • Food safety is already at risk of becoming an orphan issue. For example, next year’s WHO/FAO International Conference on Food Safety is the “First”. The first!  In addition one of the major multilateral donors at the workshop said that food safety was not a priority for them. And I was surprised to see that there is no “food safety index” to compare different country efforts to keep their food safe and exert some pressure on them to do better. Finally I was taken aback by how little research is dedicated to food safety in the food and agriculture sphere. For example while there are over 50 flagship projects in the CGIAR–our world class international agricultural research system–there is only one in food safety, and that was started just 2 years ago.
  • No one in the healthy diets community is implementing a set of actions at allpoints in a given food system to improve diet. System thinking is not yet the default way of working of governments, donors, businesses or civil society.  Food safety experts could teach us a thing or two about working across food systems.
  • Finally, food standards and safety agencies are sometimes powerful: they are not called “authorities” for nothing. Some, like the Indian Food Standards and Safety Authority, are moving into the nutritious food/healthy diet vacuum and making things happen. They are exercising their agency. The healthy diets community needs to harness this dynamism, but they won’t be able to unless they engage.
So let’s work for healthy diets and food safety to achieve some good docking complementarities, to prevent unnecessary collisions and ensure that the two issues and communities do not blithely pass each other in the darkness. People deserve better.